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Security Cameras In School: Protective Or Invasive?


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Students in many schools across the country will notice something new as classes' resume. Clifton High School in New Jersey, Garnet Valley High School in Pennsylvania, Ottumwa High School in Iowa, just three of the many schools that installed security cameras in hallways, classrooms, cafeterias, in buses and gymnasiums.

Many school administrators say video cameras cut down on any number of crimes, from assault to theft to gang violence. At Clifton High in New Jersey, the decision to install cameras came after several sexual assaults in a school stairwell.

Still, not everyone approves. Some students see cameras as an invasion of privacy. Some teachers welcome cameras in the classroom while others see them as an unwelcome intrusion. So where do you draw the line: at the doorway, hallways only? What about the classroom, buses, even locker rooms?

If there are surveillance cameras in your school, what's changed there as a result? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, most us don't respond when we see someone in a life-threatening situation; a few of us act. New research on heroes and bystanders. But first, video cameras in school, and joining us now from his office is Ben Lang, director of technology at the Novato Unified School District in Novato, California. Nice to have you on the program today.

BEN LANG: Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: And I understand video surveillance has just arrived in Novato.

LANG: Yes, we have a total of 14 schools and two major high schools, and we've just got them up and going for the beginning of the school year for our two high schools.

CONAN: And was there much debate over this decision?

LANG: I wouldn't call it debate, but there was a lot of discussion. We went through a whole process. It was - we first engaged a consultant to come in that has been installing them and setting them up and advising other school districts in our area. And it went through a series of school board meetings and finally implementation.

CONAN: So what were the pros and cons as you assessed them?

LANG: Well, there was very little to almost no pushback in the district, in the community. The community saw it as child safety, an improvement upon child safety and protecting our property against theft and vandalism and as well as deterrent.

CONAN: And did you base your decision on another model of another district in California?

LANG: Oh yes, we're actually probably behind the curve in the Bay Area in terms of high school video surveillance. We took a hard look at Tam, Mount Tam District, it's one of our neighbors.

CONAN: And their experience obviously pretty positive for you to leap on to this.

LANG: Yes, sir, they had - it had proved a deterrent for them, that the theft and vandalism had gone way down.

CONAN: How many cameras are installed per school?

LANG: I should have pulled that together before I talked to you.


LANG: One of - our larger high school is approximately 15 cameras, and the other is about 13, 12 or 13.

CONAN: And was there any discussion about where to put them, in hallways, cafeterias, that sort of thing?

LANG: Oh yes, there was a lot of discussion about that. The consultant played a role in that, and the school administrator, the principal and the associate principal played a large role in it as well. Problem areas, safety areas, and all of our - we put no internal cameras. All of our cameras are in outside areas, in entrances and exits to the schools. And our primary guideline was not to place any camera in any area where there was a reasonable expectation of privacy.

CONAN: So that was the decision, and does that include hallways, for example?

LANG: Yes, it includes - we did not put in any internal cameras. We do have kind of breezeways, outside-type hallways. We do have some cameras covering that, and the parking lots. We have the parking lots covered, as well.

CONAN: What about buses?

LANG: No, nothing on buses.

CONAN: How long are the recordings kept, and who has access?

LANG: The recordings are maintained for 14 days, that was a limitation where the school board asked for a limitation of how long the recordings would be kept, and it was partly based on the limitations of the hardware. But the board wanted a policy on how long. So we keep them for 14 days. And - I'm sorry.

CONAN: And who has access?

LANG: Access is - for the two high schools, each of the - there's an associate principal at each of the high schools who has access to it; myself as the director of IT; and then we have a security person who manages security throughout the district, is a safety consultant, and he has access to it.

CONAN: And was there discussion, should something happen, and would these records be provided to law enforcement?

LANG: Yes, that discussion was there, and that is part of our board policy. If a law was broken, then they would be made available to law enforcement agencies.

CONAN: School's been in session a couple of weeks now there. Do you sense any change?

LANG: Actually no, we haven't.


LANG: We haven't noticed much of a change although we have had no theft or vandalism at those two campuses since school has started.

CONAN: I guess that's a change.

LANG: Well, we didn't have - you know, it wasn't something that happened every week. We did have - certainly there was theft and vandalism that happened every year, but again, we've only had them in place for a couple of weeks now.

CONAN: And how much do they cost? Was that a factor?

LANG: Yeah, it was a factor. And, you know, you're familiar with school funding in California, we're all suffering here for finances, but it was approximately $178,000 full implementation.

CONAN: And you think it's going to pay off?

LANG: Oh yes, sir, I definitely believe it is. You know, our primary concern is child safety and then secondary is the protection of our property from theft and vandalism.

CONAN: It just strikes me as unusual that given this - you're in the Bay Area, the phrase Big Brother did not pop up.

LANG: There was almost zero pushback from that. There was always discussion, and of course we are the liberal Bay Area, but there was very little to no pushback.

CONAN: And is this policy going to be reviewed periodically?

LANG: Yes, they - the school board will review it. I don't think there's been a time set, but they'll definitely review it annually because there's talk about expanding it to other schools now as well.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much, and good luck, then.

LANG: All right, well, thanks for your time.

CONAN: Ben Lang, director of technology for Novato Unified School District in Novato, California, he joined us by phone from his office. We want to hear from students, teachers, parents. If there's surveillance cameras in your school, what's changed? Tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email is And we'll start with Doug(ph), and Doug's with us from Terra Forte(ph). Is that how it's pronounced, in New York?

DOUG: It's (unintelligible).

CONAN: OK, go ahead.

DOUG: Yeah, my experience with these cameras, not only have our local - I'm in a suburb - but not only have our local school districts put in cameras and security doors where the kids are controlled by entrance and access, accessibility but also the cameras monitor the doors, and there are cameras around the school that monitor the hallways.

My experience is that they have had a positive effect on reducing the incidents of bullying. There is...

CONAN: What's the evidence for that?

DOUG: Well, it's not a scientific study, it's just based on the number of complaints that have come in from parents and students and teachers over the last several years.

CONAN: And so you think it's reduced the incidence of bullying, and is that just a belief, or again, just...

DOUG: It's a belief on my part, but I also hold the belief based on the same kind of evidence that bullying on buses is still quite high, and we do not have cameras on buses. There was an experiment tried with a couple of buses, but it's expensive, and it didn't provide any beneficial aspects.

So while bullying is a big deal in the schools, when there's cameras around, the kids are more conscious of what they're doing.

CONAN: All right, well, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

DOUG: Thank you.

CONAN: Joining us now by smartphone from his office in Milwaukee is Peter Pochowski. He served as chief of security for Milwaukee Public Schools for eight years and as police captain in the city of Milwaukee for many more. He's now secretary at the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers. Nice to have you with us today.


CONAN: And how much of an increase has there been in installation of surveillance cameras in schools?

POCHOWSKI: Well, in the last 20 years, I think Americans have demanded increase surveillance around the schools and particularly since the Columbine incident, where - and no district in the country was prepared for anything like that, so this is not an indictment of Jefferson County at all. None of us were prepared.

But after that happened, then I think the parents of American students expected and demanded that we do more to protect our kids and our teachers. So there was a number of things that happened in addition to cameras, but technology in general has exploded over the past - since the Columbine incident.

CONAN: And has it - is there any way to prove that it's been effective or not?

POCHOWSKI: Well, it's difficult because you can't measure what you prevent. If we did a very in-depth, thorough study, and we looked at a school for perhaps a year before we put the cameras in and then a year after, I don't know anybody who's doing that. I've heard people say oh, it's clearly much better, but I don't know if anybody has ever measured that.

CONAN: And we heard Ben Lang in Novato say that they're just doing the outdoor areas, not indoors, but that's not typical, as I understand it.

POCHOWSKI: No, it's not typical, but, you know, it is a local decision, and I support 100 percent what every school board does because it is what's best for them. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation. You have some teachers who are concerned about cameras in classrooms, and I would ask you the same question that I ask the teachers: Are you comfortable if your boss is standing over you watching everything you're doing. Even as you're interviewing me, would you be comfortable with your boss standing behind you with a notepad out watching what you're doing?

And I think that's a little disconcerting for anybody. So you wouldn't get your best from your teachers if they have to worry about that. Obviously places like teachers' lounges, restrooms and that type of thing should be off-limits, but there are places - dark, secluded hallways are notorious for having problems. Sexual assaults frequently happen in those areas, sales of drugs, and bullying, threats, those kinds of things happen there.

CONAN: Up next, we're going to find out how many schools are using this technology, what changed after cameras were installed. If there are surveillance cameras in your school, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about the growing number of schools that install video surveillance in classrooms, hallways, playgrounds. In one Washington high school, administrators say they put up cameras to keep students and teachers safe. What that means, though, was left open for interpretation.

When a dean saw two girls kissing in the hallway, he shared the footage with the parents of one of the girls. They pulled her out of school. The superintendent apologized, and a debate erupted over whether or not that's an appropriate use of school security cameras.

If there are surveillance cameras in your school, what's changed? 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our guest is Peter Pochowski, secretary at the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers. He earlier served as chief of security for Milwaukee Public Schools.

Let's get another caller in on the conversation. This is Tamara(ph), and Tamara's on the line with us from Spokane.


CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

TAMARA: I'm a teacher in District 81 in Spokane, Washington, and your story that you came out with just after the break was actually highlighting my - the point I was going to make. It's a double-edged sword, and in my school, we have surveillance cameras. It's an elementary school. And I've seen it be both a deterrent and really an excellent source to help build character in the school when children are caught doing things that they shouldn't do.

However, in my school, the principal also began using the surveillance cameras to clock the teachers' times that they came and left the school. And it got a little - well, it got very hand. If a teacher arrived at 7:59, they might write 8 o'clock in the book, and he would go in and change those things. And I believe fully that the surveillance cameras are great, it's going to teach the children as they grow older and go into high school that they cannot behave this way, that somebody is watching.

But there needs to be a lot more training and a lot more discussion for the leaders of the school in how they use that equipment. They've got to stay focused on it being, you know, for the right reasons and not abusing for the student or for teachers. And I can take your comments offline.

CONAN: All right, thanks - I just wanted to ask you, are you comfortable with the idea of cameras in the classroom?

TAMARA: I personally am. I'm a music teacher, and I do a lot of theater, and I'm always in front of people and working with people observing me. And my personal feeling is if your teaching isn't always at its best, please don't be in the classroom and that I wouldn't mind having somebody watch me. I'm observed often in this district, and I'm fine with it.

I do understand how others might not be comfortable with it; I'm personally just, I'm OK with it.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much.

TAMARA: Thank you.

CONAN: And Tamara's story, interesting, Peter Pochowski, that effectively using it not just for security, everybody applauds that, but as a timeclock.

POCHOWSKI: Well, there are some states where in - the laws were written to minimize this type of action by an administrator. And I think this is, this is a good debate issue. If you look at cameras as something, another tool in the toolbox for administrators to help keep schools safe, like any other tool, you have to use it wisely.

And if this teacher is late or early, and the administrator happens to catch it, then I think they should, you know, counsel the person and talk to them about it before they start taking, you know, disciplinary action against them. But it does - it is a two-edged sword, and that's what happens with these kinds of things. So it's a tradeoff.

But I think if we keep in mind we're trying to alter the behavior of the students and the people that come to our schools, the outsiders that come around. And there's an old saying that it's not the severity of punishment that alters behavior, it's the certainty of it.

If students who are misbehaving are certain that they're going to get caught, then they won't misbehave. And that's what cameras do. They do one of two things. One is they deter behavior from happening; and number two, if it does, then they record it. So the intent is always to deter that type of behavior, and that's one of the benefits of cameras.

CONAN: This email from Adam(ph): My previous high school recently installed just a few cameras, which were met with very strong resistance. Big Brother certainly was invoked. As a direct result of the installation, some students painted Orwell references on the wall. Interestingly, despite the cameras, these students were never caught.

In addition, in a campus with exceptionally low vandalism and violence, the cameras have severely affected student morale. Whether the cameras have reduced crime on campus I'm not sure, but the students are strongly opposed. And that does raise a question: Peter Pochowski, are they appropriate in all school districts every time?

POCHOWSKI: Well, again it's a local decision. But the - the way the world is changing now, people need to understand it, we're on cameras quite a bit. From the moment you leave your home, for example in the city of New York - by the time you leave your home in the morning, and you return at night after work, shopping, dinner, theater, you're on camera over 300 times throughout the city of New York.

And in London, it's over 700 times, and that was before the Olympics. So being on camera is not what it used to be years ago, and it's something that people have to get used to. So I don't see it as being that much of a problem. Again, if there's nothing going on that's inappropriate, then I have no problem being on camera as often as I am.

CONAN: Let's go to Philip(ph), and Philip's with us from Cicero, Indiana.

PHILIP: Hi, I actually requested a camera in my office this summer because the school is doing some upgrades. I work for a private boarding school, and they were putting cameras in the dormitory hallways, as well as in the administration building where most of the classes are taught.

But I teach in a separate building. I'm the music teacher, and sometimes I'm over in a separate building with me as the only adult in the building, and sometimes I have a female student, and, you know, I want to guard myself against any accusation because even - in my career, even an accusation, whether it's true or not, can end my career.

And so I wanted to give myself that safeguard, in addition to the fact that sometimes I collect cash from the students during fundraisers and whatnot so I can keep myself accountable, as well as any students who may be wandering through my office - to that.

CONAN: And did the school comply and put a camera up?

POCHOWSKI: They were very eager to comply, as a matter of fact, because they understood the challenge of supervision and not having just - even one adult with one student, whether or not it was of a different sex.

CONAN: Peter Pochowski, have you heard of this kind of situation? Obviously there's a difference between private and public schools.

POCHOWSKI: Yes, no, there's definitely - I think this gentleman is 100 percent correct. And it is a changing world, and it's terrible that our male teachers, and even our female teachers, have to worry about this one-on-one situation because just a few people. If you look at the number of teachers in our country that we have and then the number who've been charged criminally with inappropriate behavior with students, it taints the rest of the profession, and unjustly.

And so I think it's a reasonable request, and we've had this from football coaches, baseball coaches, the dance teachers who are there early in the morning, late in the evening. It is somewhat of a protective insurance for them, that there is somebody watching, not necessarily on that camera watching at that time, but as I said before, a camera - and you need to have signs telling people that the cameras are operating - that is a deterrence, there's no question about that.

CONAN: Philip, thanks very much for the call.

PHILIP: Thank you.

CONAN: And this is an email that we have from Laura(ph) in California: I understand the desire for safety and security of our students. I am concerned that abuses are inevitable. My high school-aged daughter was told by a school administrator last year I saw you on the security camera three days ago in violation of the dress code, don't do that again.

No part of that interaction contributed to the school's safety or security. We cannot effectively prepare our children to live responsible, adult lives if their every move is monitored and controlled. And again, you're not responsible for that particular usage, Peter Pochowski, of the school surveillance system, but if it's there, it will be used for purposes other than it was designed for.

POCHOWSKI: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I can tell you that in Milwaukee when we started this, it took quite a bit of resistance - putting cameras in the schools. And we had to come up with a policy that if I - and I could remotely go into any of our schools and go into the 20 or 30 or 40 cameras that I had, and I could pan, tilt and zoom and look around at things.

And any time I did that, I had to then call the principal of that school to let him or her know that I was doing that, unless the superintendent was giving me the authority to do it because he was looking at the actions of an administrator in a school.

So despite doing that for eight years, I never one time had a problem, never one time went looking for anything like that. And yet while we were doing some other things, some other observations, we did find behavior that was inappropriate. We brought it to an administrator's attention, and I thought they appropriately handled it.

How information comes to an administrator's attention - you have your senses - and if you say, well, I didn't hear this, didn't smell it, didn't, you know, didn't touch it, how else it comes to your attention is to me not important. What you do with it once you see that there's something inappropriate going on, I think that's, like any other tool, the more you use that tool, the better you will get at it.

And I think administrators are just now getting comfortable with this tool in their toolbox.

CONAN: Let's go next to Francie(ph), Francie with us from Buffalo.

FRANCIE: Hi, I just wanted to say I have a more positive experience, I think. I was very hesitant when they first put the cameras in. I'm a physical therapist, and traditionally I take my kids all out in the hall. But even me being so outgoing, I didn't want to be out there, I didn't want to be on stage, and so I felt myself bringing the kids more into the hall. But once you realize they weren't using it for anything foul, that it was just really there for our safety, I was back out in the hallway. But there was a transitional period.

And so for those kids - I know the - in the lead-in it said a student was so afraid of the cameras. I think there is a transitional period, and I think that the administration has to be conscious of that. But I definitely think it can be used for good things.

CONAN: And so no problems now.

FRANCIE: No. No problems.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, Francie.

FRANCIE: You're welcome. Bye-bye.

CONAN: And we think of people being aware that they are being monitored. I wonder, Peter Pochowski, if after a while people forget they're being monitored.

POCHOWSKI: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I think in the first year or so, as one gentleman said, he thinks that things have gotten better. He can see, but - and that's because right now they're very conscious of it. But after a while, we ask teachers to lock the doors so that outsiders can't get into buildings.

And yet we oftentimes will find them leaving something in the door while they go out into the car to get something. They just - they don't realize that we now can see that they're going out of this exit, and we can see that, and they forget that we're even watching them do that. So, yeah, after a while, it becomes second nature, and it's no longer good or bad. It's just there.

CONAN: Let's go next to Greg, and Greg with us from Springfield, Illinois.

GREG: Yes. I was a retired superintendent. I've been retired for seven years now, but I was a superintendent for 22 years, and in the last seven years, I've been teaching as a visiting professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. I put in cameras 25 years ago in schools. I - we had vandalism. The cameras really stopped the vandalism. We also put them on buses.

I remember one man talking on your program that the - that they hadn't put it on buses in his district, but we did, which stopped a lot of fights. It stopped some problems with parents getting on the bus and confronting bus drivers. I've probably visited 100 different schools in the last seven years in my job at university, and, you know, every one of them was a locked (unintelligible) supervision except for one school.

CONAN: So this is becoming universal, you're suggesting.

GREG: Oh, absolutely. I'm surprised it's even an issue any place.

CONAN: And buses. The previous - Ben Lang at the Nevada - Novato, California District said it - one of the reasons was it was expensive. Was that your experience?

GREG: Well, it was expensive except that, you know, when you're having problems on the buses, I felt that it was worth the expenditure. I had cameras on every bus. I mean, a lot of districts will rotate a camera. They'll have a fake housing, and they'll rotate a camera so the kids don't know where it is. I had them on every bus.

CONAN: And you just think it's a no-brainer.

GREG: I think it's a no-brainer. It was never an issue with anyone, and it stopped the problems on the buses, and it stopped the vandalism, and it stopped some issues with theft around the school.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

GREG: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking about video surveillance cameras in schools. Our guest is Peter Pochowski, secretary at the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Kristen's(ph) on the line with us from Moses Lake in Washington.


CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KRISTEN: Moses Lake, Washington, many of us remember February 2nd of 1996, and we were the site of one of the first televised school shootings with Barry Loukaitis. And after the events of that took place, they started implementing a heavy security system throughout the schools, both in the junior high, elementary and up into high school. And it's also carried over into the bus system as well. So we do have the security cameras both in all of our school districts as well as the buses. And...

CONAN: What's been the effect, do you think?

KRISTEN: It's kind of been a mixed difference. There's been less violence, I think, on the bus system. But as far as the school district goes, it's kind of been a give-or-take because a lot of the security systems involve - they start stereotyping a lot of those kids. So sometimes, you know, they're pushed aside or other kids are profiled.

And they'll - I don't know if it's really had that much of an effect. We had a lot of - more gang violence in recent years that's even caused our school to shut down out of fear for the students' safety regardless of the cameras involved.

CONAN: When you say some are pushed aside, in other words some kids, they say, oh, it's just boys being boys, and others say - in other cases, they decide to refer this to the authorities.

KRISTEN: Right. And it hasn't really curbed the effects of school fights, like, those still went on, and I've seen even in situations where the janitorial rather than the security guards are the ones who break up many of these fights.

CONAN: And that suggests, Peter Pochowski, that as valuable as they may be, these are not a panacea.

POCHOWSKI: Yeah. As I said, they're a tool for the toolbox. They are not the solution to all the problems. I will tell you that having the maintenance folks break up fights prior to the safety people getting there, I think all - I think everybody in the school is responsible for school safety and security. And to think that cameras will stop all of that is - I think it's kind of naive.

If you keep in mind, again, that - you know, the world is changing, and now we're having a lot more problems with parents coming to school. And having them demand things or even assault teachers is a phenomenon that's been - we're seeing more and more over the past decade.

And having a camera on the front door, you can see who's coming in and out of the building. You can see what they're coming in the door with, if they're carrying anything like a weapon, or if they're leaving with something like a computer under their arm. That's what cameras can help do. But as far as stopping these things from happening - and if there's no fear that something will happen to these kids even after they've been broken up - a fight has been broken up, if the administration doesn't take any responsible and appropriate action, they're just going to do it again.

So having them on camera does nothing except make them - now, they become heroes because they're on camera all over the place, everybody knows it, but there's no repercussions for their bad behavior. And I think that's - a serious problem that I've seen across the country, is administrators resisting taking corrective action for kids who were out of control.

CONAN: Peter Pochowski - Kristen, we got about five seconds left.

KRISTEN: All right. I was just wondering if you thought maybe that overcrowding could be a big difference between the, you know, the crime rate and the effectiveness of the security cameras.

CONAN: Good question.

POCHOWSKI: Well, anytime you have - yeah.

CONAN: Go ahead.

POCHOWSKI: Anytime you have more people in a school than you should have, you're going to - you're looking for some problems, no doubt.

CONAN: Peter Pochowski, thanks very much for your time today.

POCHOWSKI: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Peter Pochowski joined us from Milwaukee where he was formerly chief of security for the Milwaukee Public Schools. Stay with us. When we come back, it's the continuation of TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.